This week, something unique happened: a white supremacist was charged with terrorism. Unfortunately, acts like this are rarely called out for what they rightfully are. But they must be if we want to keep America safe.
Too often the terrorism label is reserved for those thought to be Muslim, while others suspected of equally heinous crimes tend to be deemed “mentally ill.” Thankfully, New York pursued accurate charges against James Harris Jackson, a 28-year-old white U.S. Army veteran who had reportedly traveled from Baltimore to New York for one single purpose: to kill black men.
Why did Jackson hate black men? He stated in an interview after his arrest that he was angered by interracial relationships because as he saw it, black men were “putt[ing] white girls on the wrong path.” Jackson, who authorities say is a member of a white supremacist group, added that “the white race is being eroded.”
Too often the terrorism label is reserved for those thought to be Muslim, while others suspected of equally heinous crimes tend to be deemed ‘mentally ill.’
Having arrived in New York, Jackson randomly chose 66-year-old African American Timothy Caughman and then repeatedly stabbed him to death. Worse, police say Jackson viewed the murder of Caughman as “practice prior to going to Times Square to kill additional black men.”
The response by elected officials in New York to thus demand that Jackson be charged as a terrorist should be commended. But I also must admit that I never expected it to happen. After all, Dylann Roof had brutally murdered nine African Americans in 2015 at a South Carolina church but was not slapped with a terrorism charge.
New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. took a stand that other prosecutors should follow. When the grand jury indicted Jackson on terrorism charges, Vance explained bluntly in a statement Monday that Jackson had, “prowled the streets of New York for three days in search of a black person to assassinate in order to launch a campaign of terrorism.”
Why does it matter that someone like Jackson is charged with terrorism? Simple ― it makes us safer. It makes the vitally important point that terrorism doesn’t come in only one skin color, ethnicity or religion. That someone who is a white American could fit the bill, too.
That’s why charging people like Roof with only a hate crime is not sufficient. It neither conveys the seriousness of the crime nor does it make the bigger point that terrorism can be committed by a person who doesn’t have a foreign-sounding name or brown skin. “See something, say something” must apply to all suspicious behavior, not just Muslims. There is no white person exception for terrorism.
Furthermore, if media and law enforcement label all terrorists as terrorists, it opens up the possibility that those who witness radicalization before an actual attack happens will speak up and say something so that we don’t have another Chapel Hill shooting where innocent Muslims are gunned down or another Charleston church shooting where innocent African American lives are lost. But with such a tailored notion of terrorism, people may not understand the gravity of the situation until it’s too late.
Charging white supremacists like Jackson with terrorism makes the bigger point that terrorists are not only those with brown skin or foreign-sounding names.
Take the case of Dylann Roof. Prior to the attack, Roof told his friend his goal of wanting “to start a race war.” Yet his friend’s response was, “He would say it just as a joke. … I never took it seriously.” Adding to that, Roof had appeared in photos on Facebook openly donning symbols of white supremacy. Despite this, no one was alarmed enough to call the authorities.
And it certainly doesn’t help that U.S. President Donald Trump focuses only on what he calls the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” but was silent when a right-wing white Canadian walked into a mosque in Quebec and murdered six Muslims. By narrowing the definition of terrorism in his rhetoric, Trump is furthering the narrative that the only terrorist threats come from Muslims and alienating other victims of terror in the process.
As the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, there has been a recent spike in the number of hate groups, especially neo-Confederate and anti-Muslim ones. According to CNN, there have been 35 incidents in which mosques have been targeted with arson, vandalism and threats between January 1 and late March of this year. And just a few days ago, a man was arrested in connection with an incident at a Colorado mosque that included rocks and a Bible being thrown through the Islamic center windows. These instances, some of which are deadly plots by right-wing extremists, rarely attract headlines and even more rarely do we hear the term terrorism used to describe them.
Glendon Scott Crawford is just one of many examples. Sentenced in December to 30 years in prison for trying to build a weapon of mass destruction to kill Muslim Americans, he was not charged with terrorism nor did we see wall-to-wall to media coverage about his case ― something we would’ve likely witnessed if he were Muslim. And while a U.S. attorney did refer to Crawford as a terrorist after the conviction, he was not charged with terrorism and thus most media outlets refrained from using that term.
While some may think deciding whether an incident is terrorism or not has been a tricky and sometimes subjective call, it shouldn’t be. The federal statute covering “domestic terrorism” is on its face broad enough to cover white supremacist plots. This federal law, which has been adopted almost verbatim by various states including New York, defines domestic terrorism as “activities that”:
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended—
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
The actions of the right-wing terrorists that are “dangerous to human life” clearly are intended to “intimidate” civilians. Jackson’s case in New York, to which the grand jury applied this statute, is just one example.
By narrowing the definition of terrorism in his rhetoric, Trump is furthering the narrative that the only terrorist threats come from Muslims and alienating other victims of terror in the process.
Going forward, premeditated attacks that are intended to frighten a community ― be it based on race, religion or ethnicity ― must be deemed terrorism. And law enforcement and media must use that term.
Many of the hate crimes we have seen in America are not just desecrations of buildings or places of worship. Rather, the goal is to intimidate a targeted civilian population. That is terrorism. Period.
It’s long past time that we put aside bias, political correctness or whatever is keeping us from acknowledging this reality and call the attacks by right-wing extremists what they are: terrorism. Until we treat these threats as seriously and dedicate resources to fighting them like we do with “radical Islamic terrorism,” none of us can truly be safe.